Andrew Justin
Aesthetic rivalry having displaced violence among Mardi Gras Indians, even "weapons" become objets d’art.

Big Chief Victor Harris of the Mandingo Warriors (aka Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi) on Carnival Day 2011

At age five, Chief Drew began second lining with The Square Deals Social and Pleasure Club. Maurice Justin’s brother Theodore “Teddy” Justin served as the original vice president of the club, under founder Dooky Chase. Chief Drew remembers watching the members assemble festive outfits for their neighborhood street processions, or second lines, in the garage of his grandmother’s funeral home (formerly the Lyons Club, the old headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club).

Second lining grew out of traditional African-American parades—specifically, jazz funerals. Strictly speaking, the “second line” refers to the mass of people—uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up—who join in the processions, following behind the mourners and musicians (i.e., the “first line”). More generally, the term denotes a parade involving a brass band, Mardi Gras Indian gang or second-line club. It’s also the name for the dance inspired by the distinctive syncopated rhythm—the so-called second-line beat—characteristic of the music associated with such events.

“I used to love to second line,” says Chief Drew. So much so that he’d often play hooky from school so as not to miss out on the action.

Back in the 1950s, the intersection of Dumaine and Claiborne—the site of the Carr and Llopice funeral home—was a hot spot not only for second lining, but Mardi Gras Indian activity as well. On Fat Tuesday, tribes, or “gangs,” from different neighborhoods would meet up there and have at one another. Their rivalries—which often escalated into acts of violence involving straight razors, knives, guns and hatchets—fascinated Chief Drew. “I was inspired,” he says, “because I used to watch ‘em fight.”

Back then, inflicting pain on a rival was how a Mardi Gras Indian earned a name for himself. “Whether you was runnin’ pretty or not,” says Chief Drew, “you was highly respected. But now, it’s all about runnin’ pretty.” In other words, the rivalries tend to revolve around who has the prettiest suit, as well as the aesthetics of singing and dancing.

Chief Drew “masked Indian” as a kid, but never did affiliate himself with any one gang. He was, in Mardi Gras Indian parlance, a “rebel”—freelancing with different gangs when the opportunity arose, a practice also known as “runnin’ renegade.” Recalls Chief Drew, “I used to jump in with different gangs, man, because I knew how to dance, sing [and] sew.”

One of these gangs was the Creole Wild West, originally formed in the late 1800s. Its late chief, Robert Sam Tillman Jr., also known as “Brother Timber” or “Brother Tillman,” frowned on Chief Drew’s renegade ways. “When he used to see me,” Chief Drew recalls, “he would call me ‘snotty nose.’ He said, ‘Man, when you gonna join this gang and stop runnin’ like that?’ ”

The fact that Chief Drew’s family was relatively well off—Uncle Teddy would pay to have Mardi Gras Indian regalia made for his nephew—probably didn’t help to endear the young upstart to the likes of the rough-hewn Tillman. But alas, nothing in Chief Drew’s charmed pre-teen life could have prepared him for the abrupt turn of events triggered by the break-up of his family.

At age 13, he wound up moving to the south side of Chicago with his grandmother, Geneva Llopice. “I got real rebellious,” he says, “because I didn’t know why I was taken away from my mother.”

Before long, Chief Drew was running streets with the Valvadors and, later, the Egyptian Cobras. “I enjoyed it,” he relates, “because I felt as though the gang was my family.”

All the while, Chief Drew attended church. His grandmother, who’d promised his parents that she’d look out for him, insisted on it. She told him, “Son, you don’t have to worry about nothin’. The Lord will always take care of babies and damn fools, and you’re at the top of this list.”

As it turned out, the trappings of gang life proved more alluring than the gospel. Eventually, Chief Drew, having been implicated in a burglary, found himself before a judge. ” ‘You’ve got your choice,’ ” he recalls being told: ” ‘either go to the penitentiary or the military.’ ”

Chief Drew underwent training with the Army’s 101st Airborne unit, as a paratrooper. In 1962, he arrived in Vietnam. One day, while he was walking through a rice paddy in Fubai, near Denang, an enemy bullet found the right side of his chest. While recuperating in Newbrooke, Germany, he was diagnosed with cancer and would up having his right breast removed.

Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned stateside only to discover that people, as he puts it, “didn’t know me anymore. Then I turned militant against society.”

Running with the Blackstone Rangers, a gang on the south side of Chicago, he lived the life of an outlaw—stealing and dealing drugs to feed a heroin habit that he’d picked up in Vietnam.

Even after getting married, fathering a daughter and settling into a job at Sherwin Williams—where he worked as a lithographer, printing labels for paint cans—junk was a part of his life. Eventually he sought medical help, at a VA hospital, after having walked out on his job. (When his supervisor raised his voice, Chief Drew struck him in the head with a wrench.) But it wasn’t until witnessing a murder that he summoned the determination to kick the habit for good.

It was his brother-in-law, an attorney living in Los Angeles, who originally suggested moving out west. Arriving in 1976, Chief Drew, along with a friend, formed a maintenance company focusing on masonry, landscaping and roofing. Before long, he had enough money to make a down payment on a house.

Meanwhile, however, his marriage was on the rocks. His wife was a Jehovah’s Witness. “She went her way and I went mine,” says Chief Drew. “I wasn’t going to join no Jehovah’s Witness. I’m a Catholic, I’m gonna stay that way.”

After the divorce, he adds, “I started going to church, because violence start to come on my mind again.” He owned a rifle, and there came a day when, fearing what he might do to his ex, he decided to hand it over to a priest he knew. Ever since, he has attended Mass regularly.

Turned out that the woman who would become his second wife—Jacqueline Le Falle—was a church-goer, as well. “For about a year and a half,” recalls Chief Drew, “both of us watched each other. Then we started dating. For about six months, even before we kissed, we dated. Never tried to hit on her sexually or nothin’, because I wanted to find a real spiritual woman.”

Wedding bells chimed in 1992. At the time, Chief Drew was working as a mason for the federal government, in the engineering department of a VA hospital. The work eventually claimed his right kneecap, requiring an artificial replacement. After a brief stint working in procurement for the VA hospital, Chief Drew decided to embark on a second career. He enrolled in the National Educational College, in Commerce, Ca., eventually obtaining a degree in biomedical electrical technology.

In his spare time, he’d play congas and make second-line regalia. “Everywhere I go,” he says, “I never gave up my tradition. I tried to give it to a wider community.”

Indeed, even back in Chicago, Chief Drew found time to show off his dance moves and finery. At parties, he and some cohorts would sometimes second line to entertain themselves and their friends. They called themselves the New Orleans Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners.

In the 1980s, in Los Angeles, Chief Drew came into contact with a group of transplanted New Orleanians known as LA LA (translation: From Louisiana to Los Angeles). The group put on a festival around Mardi Gras time, but Chief Drew found their presentation lacking. ” ‘How would y’all like to have some second liners?’ ” he recalls asking. “They say, ‘We got second liners.’ I say, ‘No, you don’t. You got some ragged-ass people in blue jeans—ain’t doin’ shit.’ I say, ‘I’m gonna show you some real second liners.’ ”

The initial Los Angeles incarnation of the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners consisted mainly of members of Chief Drew’s extended family who lived in the area. They first hit the street, with a live band, as part of the LA LA event in 1988. It was, according to Chief Drew, an arresting performance, what with “drawers goin’ everywhere, butts goin’ this way and that.”

The group also strutted their stuff at church parties and other functions involving L.A.’s African-American community, often raising eyebrows. The public, says Chief Drew, “wasn’t ready to accept it in California—a bunch of adults shakin’ their behinds.”